Monday, March 9, 2009

Trail of Cthulhu Session Recap

Synopsis: The Trail of Cthulhu campaign I'm running is a one-player game. Sarah (my wife) is playing a newspaper reporter named Ginny Malone. She's the new girl working at the Arkham Gazette, circa 1935. Her primary Drive is curiousity, and her Pillars of Sanity include such things as her Journalistic Integrity, and the belief that "bad things don't happen to good people".

The emotional map of the second session went like this:
  • Brief shock/creep-factor, quickly denied.
  • Angry fight, with Ginny winning the debate through the use of low-down-dirty tactics.
  • Minor frustration over bureaucratic hurdles and delays, solved by clever thinking.
  • Encouragement and gains via reconnecting with an old friend. A chance to rest.
  • Social ambush, off-kiltered to the defensive, and having to scramble to find a good cover story.
  • Relief as an acceptible compromise is reached.
  • Finally leading to more creepiness as she perused the ancient tome.
It was great fun going through the myriad forms of emotion for the session, and throwing dramatically different NPCs at her. Sarah responded in kind, putting a beautifully nuanced performance and some great key-turning moments. She was on fire last night, definitely some of her best gaming ever, and it provoked me to some great GMing, if I do say so myself.

The long form of the above:
Ginny Malone has an on-again-off-again tempestuous romance with a traveling perfume salesman named Charles. In game mechanics, Charles is one of her "Sources of Stability" meaning that comforting interactions with him can refresh her Stability pool. However, should he ever get tangled in the Mythos and killed or driven insane, it'll have some serious impact on her characters Stability and Sanity stats. This complicated relationship, and the fact that there were non-distracting mechanical reinforcements behind it, prompted the first of several really good scenes in our second session.
Backstory: In the first session, she'd been called by the Mayor, who offered her a scoop on a story he didn't want to talk about over the phone. They arranged a meeting over dinner, but the Mayor never showed. She got brave / curious enough to go check his house, and found his body. Curled up in a fetal position in the house was a man with amnesia, and a blood trail indicated this fellow had crawled from the scene of the Mayor's murder. Like any reporter would do, she called the police, and then snooped around and took photos while waiting for them to show up. Evidence she found indicated the Mayor lead a rather shocking secret life, which just confirmed her belief that good people don't wind up murdered.

The Mayor died clutching a journal, and that book was full of occult references and pornography. More disturbingly, it included a list of women's names, of which the only one that hadn't been crossed off yet was Ginny Malone (the PCs name). Needless to say, she removed the journal from the scene before the police arrived. The session concluded with her developing still and motion film taken from the site, and skimming the journal. The clues found there-in were deeply disturbing, and she'd compulsively cleaned her apartment (having failed a minor Stability roll) trying to shake it off. It was a neat little improv on Sarah's part.
Session Two started the next morning. She'd had creepy dreams involving the occult proceedings she'd seen on the film the Mayor had shot, and was awoken by a hand on her face. Turns out it was just Charles Harrington, her (currently ex-) boyfriend. Charles had the read the morning paper with her exclusive article about the Mayor's murder, and rushed over to check on her. She was upset that he must still have a key, and we immediately started exchanging verbal blows in-character.
In the middle of the argument, she notices that her carefully cleaned apartment is no longer so neatly organized. The 8mm projector is out again and reels of film are everywhere. She accuses Charles of snooping, and he insists it was like that when he arrived. "When'd you get into the Nickelodeon business, anyway?" Claims the Landlord had heard the sound of a projector running all night, like she'd been obsessively watching films. Implication being either someone else had broken in and watched the films without waking her, or she'd set the projector back up in her sleep. Either implication is kinda creepy, so she suggested Charles take her out to breakfast.
Sarah and I almost never fight - we're one of those sickeningly sweet couples that everybody else hates - but man did we have a blast pretending to be at each other's throats. The fight continued in Ginny and Charles car ride, and then round 2 at Velma's Diner, with us improvising old points of contention and things they'd done wrong before thier most recent break-up. She had an opportunity to reconcile, but at the risk of Charles becoming aware of this unspeakably bizarre occult mystery she was just starting to unravel. She chose to shelter him from it, but doing so made the fight that much more volatile, as she wouldn't explain her headspace or what she was so spooked by. Very much a soap-opera scene, obviously, not a common scene type for most RPGs. It was a lot of fun to play out thier fighting dirty while trying to keep a public face on it at the restaurant. Eventually, Charles storms out.

Now way too unnerved to go home, Ginny decides to go track down some other leads. She heads to Miskatonic University, to search the card catalog for anything referencing this Goddess named "Mormo" that was mentioned in the Mayor's journal - as understanding whether he'd been a harmless goof or a dangerous maniac would depend on what kind of cult he'd been tied up in. I wasn't expecting her to pursue that clue above various more-pressing ones, but as it turns out, I'd known that an old, half-burned manuscript on the subject was within the rare book room. It took some Library Use skill and minor social finagling, but she was able to get a dottering old professor to arrange a few hours with the manuscript if she came back later. There'd been a recent break-in at the rare book room, and a manuscript stolen, so the University staff was being very cautious now. Arranging to come back at 3:00 when there'd be an extra librarian available to control her access to the rare book room, she headed off on a diferent lead.
There'd been a dozen women on the list in the Mayor's journal, but only one (other than herself) that Ginny really knew: Rosina Tsura. Rosina had attended college at the same time as Ginny, they had taken a couple classes together and frequently gone to the same parties. Two months ago, Rosina invited Ginny to the grand opening of her new art gallery. Rosina had hoped Ginny would be writing a review for the paper, and Ginny had felt a little used. They exchanged only a few uncomfortable sentences at the Opening, and hadn't spoken since. This backstory was delivered as a semi-out-of-character synopsis, where Sarah was allowed to contribute details to their friendship and the events of the opening, as long as it ended with two months of not talking to each other.
Moving into the scene, Rosina was now very happy to see her, and very apologetic for her ill manners that fateful day two months back. She'd been unlucky in love, and the Opening wasn't going the way she'd wanted, etc. Many factors had contributed to her lack of patience at the time, but the Gallery was scraping by now, and she was willing to admit her part in the unfortunate conflict they'd had. This was, of course, designed to strongly contrast against the previous scenes where clues had been dangled just out of reach. Rosina was friendly, ammicable, and revealed a great deal of useful information of a non-sinister nature. After coffee and catching up, Ginny took photos of the gallery, and promised to write up a favorable review. She spent a couple valuable resource points making the article really good, so the Gallery would prosper - and I rewarded her with a two-point Dedicated Pool that could be used in future stories to call in favors and support from her dear friend Rosina. I think this lighter humanizing scene was really important to "selling" the session, and getting the character invested in the setting. Cthulhu can devour humanity any day he pleases, but that's only horrifying if there's at least a couple humans you kinda like.

It turns out, by the way, that Rosina had been involved in a wildfire secret romance with the Mayor for about a month. In that time, he'd plyed her with money and favors, even kicking in the money (and donating a Gericault sketch) needed to make her dream of opening a Gallery complete - but then he broke up with her earlier in the day of her Grand Opening. Rosina was ignorant of the greater implications of this tale, but it wasn't lost on Ginny. Or lost to Sarah, who seemed to be parsing my subtext quite well.

Coupled with some things she'd learned by reading the Mayor's Journal, I believe Ginny has concluded that the list of women the Mayor was crossing off indicated those he'd seduced in a search for a woman with a particular birthmark - a birthmark her character has. He'd gone to great expense to earn Rosina's trust, and then apparently dumped her once he'd gotten what he wanted. He'd reached the end of his list, and the night he was about to put the moves on the last woman (Ginny herself), someone killed him. Obviously, I can't comment on the accuracy of those conclusions - as figuring these things out is part of what makes mystery/investigative game fun.
It was getting close to her 3 o'clock appointment back at the Library, so Ginny bid Rosina adieu. She arrived at the University, expecting to have some more quality time with this old hand-written occult Tome. Instead, what she got was ambushed by the head of the Department, who had not been present on her initial arrival in the morning. Dr. Armitage took her aside to a private room, and applied the screws. Suddenly, she was being interviewed, and not the other way around. A loud in-character interrogation, full of bluster and bravado. Feign ignorance, and he'll write you off as just some pathetic child - go read Poe if you're just looking for a good scare! Show too much knowledge, and he'll decide you're a some crazed cultist. At either extreme, he won't let you near that Tome again, and if you really answer wrong, you just might end up tied to a chair.

I lit the fire under her feet, and watched her dance. She squeaked it out, but it was pretty choppy at a couple points, and she ended up having to give out more information than she wanted to. She has provisional access to the first 11 folios of the tome, provided that Armitage or someone he trusts is present, and she must give him a copy of any articles referencing Mormo before she sends them to her editor. The 12th Folio, and, indeed, the mere knowledge that it even exists, goes nowhere, young lady!
This compromise will, of course, lead to further conflicts both in- and ex-ternal, since her Journalistic Integrity is one of her Pillars of Sanity. That's okay, though, as Sarah indicated before the campaign began that she was looking forward to playing the descent into madness of the traditional Lovecraftian lead character. More fun ahead, no doubt.

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